When asked what’s my earliest memory it’s no surprise that my first packet of prawn cocktail crisps whilst watching the ’91 Spurs cup final with my dad stands out like a beacon. Other early childhood memories fade into a haze of happy contentment but my two passions in life; food and football combine to ensure that Des Walker’s winning own goal, Mabbut lifting the cup and the taste of that artificial Golden Wonder flavouring are as vivid as the pink packaging of the gastronomic gift my dad bestowed upon me.
Maybe the synthetic prawn cocktail flavouring stirred something inside of me. Most certainly a childhood being brought up on the glorious Dorset Jurassic coast led to an inevitable love and passion for seafood.
The rest of my lifetime is punctuated with clarity and definition by food experiences – shaping my tastes and creating the chef I am today.
As my palate developed I can recollect my first tender, plump mussel, mopped up and dripping in garlicky cider and cream, my first king prawn chomped down shell, butter and all, the first time I ate barbecued mackerel still fluttering with freshness straight from the sea, the list goes on, with each experience resonating as clear as the last.
One seafood epiphany stands out the clearest. It wasn’t back lit by a gorgeous sunset on exotic shores and scantily clad women but shared with an overweight, unshaven and slightly dishevelled, bald, sixty something year old chap that happened to be my college assessor.
Pete was a lovely chap and as a budding young trainee chef, I’ll always be grateful for that Thursday afternoon at catering college. I was trying to squeeze an undersized chef’s hat onto my oversized head when in his gruff, West Country voice, Pete summoned me over, “ere Sam, wanna try one of these?”. I waddled over in my ill-fitting chef trousers, collar of my polyester whites chafing at my neck, Pete leant over and gruffly grumbled with words perfumed by his lunchtime lagers and Lambert and Butlers, “ever ’ad an oyster?”
I looked down at a shimmering, quivering thing of beauty. Pure and lucid, sparkling crystal clear, plump, juicy and gently cradled by nature’s finest rugged receptacle, exterior craggy and rough, interior milky white and smooth.
Some of my peer’s eyes met the little molluscs with trepidation, anxious about eating a living thing. A dash of Tabasco and a squeeze of lemon and I dived straight in.
Down it slipped; salty, sumptuous and scented by the sea. Fresh and clean, unhampered by cooking complexities, unhindered by elaborate preparation, food in its purest format, unadulterated naturalness.
The beginning of a lifelong food affection and a budding personal food ethos encapsulated by my first oyster’s qualities, harnessed by Hungry Mule, unperturbed big natural flavours, fresh local ingredients, low on pretension and as Pete eloquently put it, “f***ing tasty”.
My top 3 ways to eat oysters;
I don’t like messing around with fresh oysters too much and don’t go in for the Kilpatrick method you find up and down Australia of covering the poor little blighters in bacon and cheese. Fresh, simple flavours are key.
Go buy an oyster knife and some fresh oysters, get shucking and enjoy the finest fruit of the sea.
Open them up and slurp them down. A dash of Tabasco and a squeeze of lemon helps them along nicely or finely dice some shallot, mix with white wine vinegar and spoon over a few drops before digging in.
My personal favourite. I swear by this method as the mother of all hangover cures. Obviously you don’t need to be hungover to enjoy them this way.
Shuck some oysters and carefully remove them from their shell, pop each one into a shot glass. Make a zingy, fresh Bloody Mary with plenty of Worcestershire sauce and citrus and top up each shot glass. Knock them back and either your hangover will be cured or you’ll be buzzing with a healthy hit of vitamins and zinc depending on your starting state.
If you’re a little apprehensive of trying the pearls of the sea in their raw state, this method changes the texture of the oyster whilst still retaining all of the lovely flavour. Equally good whether you’re an oyster novice or pro.
Shuck oysters and remove from shell. Lightly dust in flour, eggwash and then coat in herby panko breadcrumbs. Deep fry until golden brown, drain, season and tuck in.